Joan Bennett Chapman was 9 years old when Japanese soldiers herded her family to the Santo Tomas Internment Camp (STIC) in 1943 to join thousands of internees there until they were liberated in February 1945.
Accompanied by her daughter Melanie, Chapman was one of 20 surviving American internees who paid an emotional sentimental visit to the University of Santo Tomas (UST) on Feb. 3, exactly 70 years after their liberation.
The occasion was the opening of a commemorative exhibit on the STIC at the UST Museum of Arts and Sciences.
The exhibit, which will run until March 7, consists of memorabilia, archival photos and books related to the camp. It also features the comprehensive list of the internees.
STIC was the biggest internment camp of the Japanese in the Philippines. At one time, it was housing 7,000 internees. Although mostly Americans, the internees also included British, Canadians, French, Australians and Dutch, nationalities deemed enemies by the Japanese.
Chapman’s visit was her first of the Philippines since 1945. She explained she and her father “always [had] wanted to come home back to Manila.”
Her father was former Manila Bulletin editor Roy C. Bennett.
“It has taken me 70 years, but I feel like I have finally come home,” she said.
“In my head, I’m an American, but a large part of my heart, a Filipina. This is my birthplace,” she added.
Chapman was joined by other Philippine-born American internees in a homecoming organized by the Bay Area Civilian Ex-Prisoners of War (BACEPOW) headed by another former internee, Sascha Jean Weinzheimer Jansen.
Chapman recalled her experience during her last days at the internment camp.
“Somebody got word to him (Gen. Douglas MacArthur) that on Feb. 5 (1945), the Japanese were going to abandon the camp and go up into the hills, never surrender,” she said.
The Japanese had plans to take some women for “breeding purposes” and take able-bodied men as human shields, she added.
“They are going to take the rest of us— women, children—and sit us all in that great, big, wide wooden staircase and blow us to kingdom come. And that was to happen on Feb. 5,” said Chapman.
MacArthur, according to her, was told to send American forces directly to Santo Tomas, and “they came on February 3rd.”
“I was supposed to die on that staircase and, a day and a half ahead of time, we were rescued,” she declared.
The plan by the Japanese to blow off the camp and its internees did not materialize, and the big, wide wooden staircase of UST still exists today. It leads to the famous paraninfo, the old academic hall of the Pontifical University, which now houses the UST Museum.
She said that, one time, a Japanese soldier was executed and “his body dumped at the corner of this very room,” referring to the space between the building’s main entrance and the wooden stairs.
“So to be in this part of the building is very emotional for me.”
Camp life, according to her, “was kind of peaceful” most of the time.
“We made as normal a life we could,” she said. “The adults who had been teachers or engineers or anything like that worked daily on what they know what to do.”
There was peaceful coexistence between the internees and their captors, but the former later on suffered from starvation and malnutrition.
Soup kitchens were originally set up and no conditions were made to feed the internees, but eventually food became watery. Food became scarce near the end of their detention, she said.
“People would just die by the dozens. We wouldn’t have lasted much longer.
“We were dying very much of starvation. That was the most dangerous part of it.”
The children inside the internment camp did not have frightening experiences because parents would hide how worried they were, said Chapman.
“This became a thriving little city.”
As recalled by another former internee, Jansen, STIC had a hospital, vegetable gardens and an informal school. People were allowed to build shanties outside of the building when the number of internees increased considerably.
A group of shanties was called Broadway, another called Glamourville, said Jansen.
“But there was nothing glamorous about it,” she quipped.
This trip is just one of the many tours organized by Jansen for the internees. This is her 12th time to be back in the Philippines.
And for Chapman, who is now 81 years old, she expected this to be her first and last visit since 1945 of the place she calls home.